Needed: more bus drivers

School officials are looking at ways to make the job more appealing


A chronic shortage of school bus drivers - fueled by a shrinking applicant pool and limited work schedules - has Carroll County school officials pondering ways to make the job more appealing.

"It's an ongoing problem," Jim Doolan, the school system's director of transportation services, said during an interview last week. "Eighteen years ago when I took this job, we were talking about a driver shortage. But it wasn't as severe then as it is now."

He said the most significant contributor to the shortage is a dwindling supply of applicants.

"It's an economical thing," he said. "The pool of people available in Carroll County to drive buses is down. The population is up, but the people who are buying houses here at $300,000 or more have jobs so they can afford them."

He said the typical candidate for a bus driver position is unemployed or retired. About 40 percent of the drivers are ages 60 to 64, while an estimated 36 percent are between the ages of 30 and 49, based on figures from last year.

"They're willing to make this their income, or they're a retiree who wants to do this and then have time to go golfing or work on a project at home" between morning and afternoon bus rounds.

In addition to fewer job applicants, Doolan said, the responsibilities of safely delivering children to school and back home can give some people pause.

"When you can work 20, 25 or 30 hours a week, this is decent part-time money," he said. "But you're also paying for a person to be a very responsible individual. They're driving a 36-foot, 16,000- pound vehicle with their backs to a bus full of kids.

"It's a great job. It's a great chance to work with kids and start kids off in a positive way before they get to school," Doolan said. "But everybody can't do it."

During a recent school board meeting, Doolan described a continuing retention problem. He said that each year about 100 applicants seek jobs as bus drivers.

Of that total, "we lose about 44 percent of them from the application process to the end of training," he said.

Of the 56 percent who complete training, about half don't last long in the job, Doolan added.

"We're only retaining about 28 drivers" from that original 100 candidates, he said.

The problem is so persistent that it topped a list of challenges that Doolan said his office is facing. The other concerns included high fuel costs, increased traffic, higher cost of buses and equipment and new programs during and after school.

Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker echoed Doolan's concerns about scheduling and pay. "It's a part-time job, but drivers have to be available full-time [in the event of] early closings," Ecker said.

Doolan said that increasing the number of guaranteed hours might help to recruit and retain drivers.

"They do a great job, but it's part-time pay for full-time work," Doolan said.

Ecker pointed to a request in his proposed operating budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, to fund a $1-an-hour bump in pay for drivers and a 3 percent across-the-board increase in pay.

Most of the school system's drivers are employed by bus contractors, who would determine whether to pass on that $1 raise to its drivers, but the money would be there to do that, Doolan said.

The proposed increases would raise driver compensation from a base pay of $12.80 an hour to $14.18 an hour, Doolan said.

"The contractors would determine whether the driver receives the increase," he said. "However, this has been a request of theirs over the years, so we believe the contractors will pass [the increase] on to the drivers."

The proposed operating budget also includes a request for funding to increase the number of guaranteed work hours from the current four hours a day to 4 1/2 hours a day next school year. School officials would like to push the guarantee to five hours a day in the year after that.

Doolan stressed to board members that it would be money well-spent because the bus drivers are well-trained and highly qualified.

He said drivers must clear several hurdles to be certified to operate a school bus. Drivers must have a satisfactory driving history, undergo fingerprinting and a criminal background check and pass a physical and pre-employment drug testing, he said.

Drivers also must attend 30 hours of pre-service training that includes 15 hours of classroom instruction on federal, state and local laws, policies and procedures. Topics covered during the training include student behavior management, bus evacuations and monitoring danger zones when loading and unloading students.

The second 15 hours of pre-service training is spent on behind-the-wheel instruction, covering such areas as railroad- and bridge-crossing procedures, accident training, defensive driving techniques and pre-trip inspection requirements, Doolan said.

"In all fairness, our salaries are competitive," he said. "I would encourage anyone looking to do service-oriented work to consider becoming a bus driver. For anyone with children in the school system, you'd get the same vacation schedule as the children and enjoy all of the summer off."

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